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Henri-Lloyd 2022 December - SW LEADERBOARD

Retour à la Base 2023: Richomme learns the solo ropes in IMOCA by leading the charge east

by Ed Gorman / IMOCA Globe Series 5 Dec 2023 07:51 PST
Transat Jacques Vabre, Imoca Paprec Arkea, skippers Yoann Richomme and Yann Elies are portraited, on August 23rd © Anne Beaugé / Paprec Arkéa

For a sailor on his first solo IMOCA race - albeit on board a brand new Koch/Finot-Conq rocketship - things have been going pretty well for Yoann Richomme.

The 40-year-old Paprec Arkéa skipper was always in the top-five in the early stages of what is turning out to be a spectacular inaugural solo Retour à la Base from Martinique to Lorient. And then he positioned himself furthest west of the leaders as they rounded the western edge of the Bermuda High.

That has given him all the power he needs as the northernmost boat of the leading group and, after just under five days at sea, Paprec Arkéa remains at the top of the leaderboard, despite the phenomenal pace of those chasing her, led by Britain's Sam Goodchild on For The Planet.

Speaking to the Class from on board, Yoann Richomme was clearly tired - he's having problems sleeping - but he gave the impression that he's still learning the ropes. God help his rivals when he finally works out what he's doing!

"I'm quite happy," said Richomme as his boat romped along downwind at close to 20 knots. "I'm learning solo manoeuvres. It's a bit physical. It's going well. There are quite a few birds circling around. Not a bad start to single-handed sailing - rather successful manoeuvres, the sails tidied up, the boat well-configured. I'm quite happy with myself - I'm not too rusty," he added laughing.

Among those chasing him as the IMOCA fleet carves great white highways across the Atlantic, is the double Transat Jacques Vabre winner Thomas Ruyant, who put his foot down on Sunday and Monday on For People, setting a new (provisional) solo monohull 24-hour distance record of 539.94 nautical miles. This beats the existing record set by Alex Thomson in 2017 by 3.13 miles.

However Ruyant's progress up the fleet to third place came to an end as he tackled the consequences of an involuntary gybe, following damage to his rudders, that dropped him back to sixth position, about 100 miles behind Richomme. During that incident, Ruyant's mainsail was torn and the rudder system damaged his aft deck. But the For People skipper seemed to have the situation under control. As his team put it: "Thomas moved seamlessly from performer to repairer, temporarily slowing his race."

Two places ahead of Ruyant, in fourth position, is another sailor on a "first" - Sébastien Simon putting together his debut solo race on his new Groupe Dubreuil (the former 11th Hour Racing Team). The 33-year-old Solitaire du Figaro winner from the Vendée, offered a vivid description of the violent ride he is now getting, going downwind in big breeze.

"The conditions are getting rougher and rougher," he said. "As I speak, we're experiencing 25-26 knots of wind. But it's above all the sea that's bothering us, as the boat tends to jump over the waves one time and crash into the wave ahead, next time, which makes things difficult.

"The water even managed to get into the boat when she came to a sudden stop, dropping from 30 knots to 15. We were kind of expecting that and it's going to get worse and worse right up to the finish, as the swell is set to increase," he added.

Like Richomme, Simon is finding sleep a precious commodity that is hard to find. "I'm trying to get the boat moving at good pace, but it's not always easy as it's either ON or OFF," he said. "I try to rest when I can, like last night when I was able to sleep in little naps of 20 minutes maximum to manage adjustments."

This is a mad thrash across the Atlantic, with the leaders on schedule to reach the finish by Saturday, as they use all the power in a big depression moving east towards Europe. While Richomme still leads, he is quite exposed on the northern flank, with a lateral separation of nearly 150 miles to Goodchild, who is sailing an exceptional race on an older boat on his first solo in IMOCA at the end of a long year that started with The Ocean Race. For the Englishman, the question now is whether he can maintain the pace as the sea state steadily builds in the second half of the race.

Richomme, meanwhile, sketched out the strategy for the coming days. "We've got the start of a low pressure system approaching behind us, which is going to force us into a tailwind, so it's going to be quite a fast angle for the boats," he explained. "These winds will take us to the Azores. Then the front will pass over us, so our southwesterly wind will change to northwesterly and should give us a good angle for the climb back towards France. It's going to be a parade of storms one after the other, but we're only likely to pick up one or two of them to propel us towards Europe."

The double Figaro winner and two-time Route du Rhum champion in Class40, is well aware that he could damage his boat, if he is not careful. "Last night there was a huge amount of bombardment...but it could quickly become a boat-breaker, so it was tricky to manage it properly," he said. "It was a bit stressful. I really wanted to try and step on the accelerator at a time when I could make a difference. I shifted back a little to the north (gybed) to get some pressure back, and I've found a boat configuration that allows me to go fast without crashing."

On Groupe Dubreuil - named after the international holding company that sponsors Simon - her skipper is enjoying the battle, but says he is not yet ready to take on the top guys in the Class in a fight for the podium. "Up front the battle is solid, but I expected no less from them," he said of Richomme, Goodchild and early leader Jérémie Beyou. The Charal skipper is now in third place and has been struggling without wind instruments at the top of his rig.

"They're a bit like regulars; they're confident in their boat and they're sailing for victory. We're not there yet. I'm not saying that one day we won't be there. On the contrary, it's our wish, but we mustn't jump the gun. We've just got the boat back, we've just built a new project with the Dubreuil Group and a brand new team. We still have a lot of work to do and a long way to go to get there, but I have no doubt that we can get there," added Simon.

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